First Engage Yourself Book Excerpt by Zane Safrit
Illustration by Eric Jackson

To keep my latest book—First, Engage Yourself—short enough to read over, say, a long lunch, I omitted nine things.

1. Buzzwords and Wonky Terms
OK, I do talk about “employee engagement.” But that phrase is bandied about so often in so many different ways for so many audiences that it’s more like a, like a, participle, like the word “there” only now it seems there’s no there there as far as employee engagement goes.

I mean, shoot, it’s being dismissed as just a trendy topic and people—smart people at one time—doubt the reality, not the data but the reality, that people who are excited and enthusiastic and empowered… OK, that’s kinda buzzy, let’s use “provided the tools and resources” to get stuff done that matters to them, their team and their company make a huge difference on a company’s bottomline.

I believe as more wonky terms—my favorite remains “discretionary effort”—enter the conversation about this thing labeled “employee engagement” the value of those discussions and the workable solutions to raise employee’s enthusiasm and connection with their work will decline or get very expensive.

2. Expensive, Custom, Employee Engagement Surveys
Yeah, no. Not gonna do that. Why? Well, I never enjoyed answering them, never believed their claims to confidentiality and never saw any changes manifest from the answers we gave. I’m not alone and so many companies refuse to acknowledge that… their employees don’t trust them, don’t care and know that it “don’t matter, they’re gonna do whatever they’re gonna do.”

Matter of fact, I think most corporate leadership know this and are OK about it. They don’t care what their employees think, otherwise they’d ask them, face to face. Besides, they can show their stakeholders how concerned they are about their employees by introducing an annual employee engagement survey. Check it off their list.

Rodd Wagner compares corporate employee engagement surveys to the Stuxnet computer virus in his book, Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People.

I do talk about E-NPS (Employee Engagement Score and System) in my next book about engaging your team. But you’ll have to wait until September. (Yes, this is a teaser.)

3. Lots of Data, Studies and Reports
First, “You don’t need weatherman to know the way the wind blows.” We didn’t need Bob Dylan to tell us that, either. But he did and I still remember the tune.
We know what happens when we work where everyone’s excited and enthusiastic and empowered, er, provided the tools and resources—that’s training and purpose and mission—to achieve their goals. And we know what happens when they’re not.

Second, there’s plenty of data from studies and reports that document the power of an engaged workforce in generating great companies with loyal customers and evangelistic employees and great financial results. I share a few, just for context and reminders.

But what’s needed isn’t more data sliced 17 more ways to Sunday or the results from a 10-year study—recently found in the trunk of a survivor’s great-grandchild—of shipping stewards who shoveled coal into the Titanic.

What’s needed are ways to change the unchangeable: employee engagement scores. They haven’t changed for the past decade despite their costs to the economy—about $450-$500 billion—and the blossoming recognition industry that totals about $40 million.

I wrote for the reader who knows the data and knows where they work and who’s ready to start but doesn’t know how or where to begin. I offer a few simple, doable, proven steps that will help them first engage themselves before asking their direct reports to do so. That’s leading by example.

4. Games, Gamification
Look people, it’s work. We’re not in kindergarten any more, Toto, and we don’t deserve a trophy everyday just for showing up.

Companies aren’t obligated to keep us entertained, and our managers and each other aren’t teachers who must keep our idle hands and minds busy otherwise we’ll be bored. Wah.

It’s work. It’s competitive. There are pressures. People depend on each other. Spouses and children and parents depend on us.

Sure we can have fun and laugh and we should be doing that a lot of the time. But that’s because of our healthy perspective that’s encouraged where we work not because there’s a ping-pong table in the conference room. It’s work; it’s not a game.

Sure, make it hard fun. I like that phrase and the order of the words. But having to create a game to create and sustain interest in my work is… I find it patronizing and pandering not engaging. Honestly, then people are engaging with the game and not each other as people—face-to-face and one-to-one.

5. Software, Dashboards
I have good friends whose business is built on software and executive dashboards. They’re super-smart and successful. Their customers love their product. Like love there’s someone for everyone.

I confess, I’m old school. That means I think if you need a spinning dial on your desktop to tell you how engaged your employees are then well you’re spending too much time engaging with the spinning wheel and not enough time engaging with your employees.

6. Pretty Colors
You’ll notice the palette of colors is minimal. Simple. Thanks, Mark. The book’s font is Times New Roman.
There are no pictures, either.

Side story: I once sent a college business professor an advance copy of my first book Engage THEM: 52 Ways to Engage Your Employees in Ways They Value. His biggest comment was, “Where are the pictures?” He spent a paragraph describing the need for pictures. A college professor, one who teaches business. Maybe he uses crayons or plays game with his students.

7. Programs
People. Engagement is about people. When did we need a program in order to have a conversation with a co-worker, a colleague, a peer, a direct report, hell—a neighbor?

I’m tempted to start a “Nanny State” rant.

But people, we’re adults. This need for “programs” comes from two sources. One, we’re losing our communication skills—our abilities to listen, debate, change minds—and decide for ourselves. So we need someone—a boss, communications department, an employee manual, social media, talking heads—to tell us what to say and how and when to say it.

We’ve confused being spoon-fed reality with learning and engaging.

Two, too many companies discourage communication and collaboration among their ranks of employees. Their sense is that more control drives better results. It does, maybe for a quarter or a year, enough time for that executive to get their bonus. But then things go off the rails in an ugly way.

8. A Quick Solution
This is tricky. You have a conversation you’re engaging, you’re connecting, you’re learning. Problem solved… in that moment. No need for consultants or surveys, games or programs, or big budgets.

On the other hand, if you’re not having these conversations regularly, like every hour, even when people disagree or even when you’re not the expert top-dog then you’re not engaging. Problem’s back or worse.

Plus, we’re social creatures and we need to connect. Bad things happen when we’re left in solitary for too long. Consider how ethics in corporate behavior remains a hot topic starting with the basics like “how” or even “why.”

And our abilities to have an engaging conversation will become an even bigger challenge in the future since they outlawed free-range kids, er, just playing outdoors with—gasp!—no parents to micromanage I mean supervise. And then as more people opt to engage with their pretty shiny things they lose those motor skills and brain resources like empathy and compassion and full sentences and abstract ideas. Every conversation becomes a Y/N transaction. I digress.

9. Someone Else’s Permission and How to Get It
The only permission you need to engage with another is your own. You need to understand it can be wonderful and so satisfying. Other times it can be wildly frustrating. You can look like a hero today and a goof the next day. You’ll learn a lot. You’ll achieve a lot. There’s no one to blame when you fail, though.

That’s scary for a lot of people. Sad, isn’t it? We’re scared to have conversations with each other even knowing how rich they can be for everyone. I think we’re getting more scared as we lose our skills from no longer practicing them.

What’s Left?
A simple series of steps that I’ve taken and that anyone at any level of any organization can take without a budget meeting or a supervisor’s approval. They generated very good results for each person and the company.

A few are steps I wish I’d discovered sooner.
I share a few of my mistakes so you can avoid them and see that you’ll survive if you make a mistake. There are a few issues around “employee engagement” that I rarely see discussed.
It’s all packaged in a book you can finish over a long lunch or a long commute.
There you go. Now go get a copy, read it over lunch or your commute.
Let me know what you think.